Mario Vargas Llosa Vargas Llosa, Mario (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vargas Llosa, Mario 1936–

Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist, critic, journalist, screenwriter, and essayist. His writing is concerned with the hypocrisy and corruption of Peruvian society and politics. Violence is a recurring motif in his work, which Vargas Llosa believes reflects a society "where the social structures are based entirely on a sort of total injustice that extends to all aspects of life." His fictional works are noted for their structural complexity and innovative presentation of both time sequence and narrative structure. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 9, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

John M. Kirk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] highlighting of the more "colorful" episodes in Vargas Llosa's novels … has resulted in the impression that the writer's overriding concern is to show merely the sordid and perverse aspects of life in contemporary Peru.

Without any doubt [a] strong—and at times overbearing—interest in the more unusual details of human sexuality is a common ingredient of Vargas Llosa's work, but fortunately, in the last analysis, this represents a relatively insignificant feature of his novels. There are far more important (but less spectacular) qualities in the Peruvian writer's work, and in fact no better compendium of these can be found than Conversation in the Cathedral itself….

Few contemporary Latin American novelists have been as expansive in writing about their personal interpretation of literary and political theory as Vargas Llosa. The essence of this former aspect can be summarized quite simply: the writer is basically a rebel, a man who is unhappy with the world that he sees around him, and who therefore writes in order to make people conscious of the problems facing their society. The corollary of this interpretation deals with the writer's own situation: having already illustrated society's ills it is now time to reveal his own obsessions, or, to use Vargas Llosa's own expression, "to exorcize one's personal devils." (p. 11)

The intention of the novel, he claims, is to reflect faithfully life in the 1950s under Odría's rule: "In this work I am attempting to reflect the social atmosphere of Peru during the eight-year rule of Odría: that mild but incredibly corrupt dictatorship that I experienced at first hand during my college years in Lima, and the mud of which—in one way or another—splattered all of us. But it is not a political novel: rather it is the reflection on many levels (social, human, erotic, racial and political as well) of Peru during this period." It is this blending of isolated incidents with Vargas Llosa's intense personal experiences which continue the importance of the "personal devils," and which, in Conversation in the Cathedral, offers the most harmonious expression to date of fiction and reality in the works of Vargas Llosa.

Unlike all of Vargas Llosa's other novels, which concentrate on one, or at most two, geographical locations, Conversation in the Cathedral now presents a wider, more encompassing view of Peruvian society. As in the majority of his earlier works, Lima is again used as the center of Vargas Llosa's attention, but this time his gaze extends further afield in a determined effort to incorporate as many representative regions of Peru as possible. True to his intention of providing a truly faithful portrayal of life in Peru during the Odría Administration, Vargas Llosa uses scenes set in the sierra and on the coast, in other large cities and in several small towns. (p. 12)

More important in this vast mural of Peruvian society, however, is the fact that the reader now finds a profound investigation of life in the different, and rigidly separated, social strata of Peru. University life at San Marcos is described in great detail, and a thorough account of the upper class social conditions of Miraflores is also provided. At the same time though, and for the first occasion in any of Vargas Llosa's works, the reader now encounters finely-etched portraits of life in several working class areas. Students and assassins, sumptuous haciendas and seedy bars, ministers and prostitutes are all to be found in this complex work. A noteworthy feature of the novel is the lack of Indian protagonists, but this shortcoming is more than compensated for by the vast array of scenes and characters. In Conversation in the Cathedral, then, Vargas Llosa has incorporated many of the scenes found in his other works, but his welcome additions combine to offer a work which far surpasses any other attempt at portraying contemporary Peruvian society, and in Vargas Llosa's case it is to be doubted if he will again produce such an immense variety of social conditions, characters, and geographical locations.

Probably the most noticeable feature of Mario Vargas Llosa's description of Peruvian society is his excellent portrayal of the upper-middle class, the "gente decente" or "decent" people as he calls them, the society which he experienced at firsthand during his youth in Miraflores. By narrating the life of Santiago Zavalita, Vargas Llosa presents his finest...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)

Gregory Rabassa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vargas Llosa attempts the breakthrough into a new expression that aims to portray or perhaps even to create what he calls "total reality" by means of the "total novel."… Vargas Llosa seems to be struggling toward something new, something more apt as an expression of contemporary Spanish American reality. But the experimentation often seems to be only that, an attempt at the "new," which of course does reflect the Latin American zeitgeist exceedingly well. The problem with his methods is that he is working with elements tried and true handed down by the nineteenth century as daring innovations which, however, have become our regnant canon. We no longer riot over Brahms. (p. 30)

Mario Vargas Llosa has sought out the simultaneity suggested by the space-time continuum in his novel Conversation in The Cathedral. This long book encompasses any number of moments, which the author has daubed for identity through the use of three verbal tenses or times. After a rather banal prologue in present time which fittingly sets the tone for the whole novel, action ultimately moves to the brothel-bar named La Catedral because of the proximity of the episcopal see, although the symbolic possibilities are obvious and legion. It is precisely this beginning which imparts the genius loci of Lima, which cannot help but be affected by the dank and dismal gray cloud cover that so often cloaks the city…. Vargas Llosa sees to it that this atmosphere of gray mediocrity is maintained throughout the book. There is no excitement here; everything is inept, both morally and mentally, from violence and murder on down.

This is the present tense, the time of the beginning and the time of the conversation between Zavalita and Ambrosio as they drink beer and dredge up the past in La Catedral. In most languages including Spanish the present tense suggests immediacy, thus livening up the narration. This is not so in the case of Conversation in The Cathedral; here it serves as little more than an indicator of who is speaking right now, and indeed, in the nonvocal parts of the beginning and end of the novel, its effect is to dampen the action, make it more drab. It is possible that Vargas Llosa has meant to use the tense here as a sort of descriptive device, to show the banality of the present of which he writes; and in a larger sense, as the conversational present is here responsible for all that is retold and recalled from the past, this banality is properly imposed on preterit events as they pass through the alembic of the here and now. Recollection is expressed in the past tense, with the aorist and imperfect aspects serving their normal grammatical functions. Once within past time, further recollection or delving is then put into the pluperfect tense. After the reader has come to the meeting between Zavalita and Ambrosio early in the book, he must be aware of the careful use of tense employed by the author and he must be continuously on the qui vive lest he be plunged like some Wellsian adventurer into a different time warp.

It is difficult to say whether or not Vargas Llosa has been successful in his use of this technique. Perhaps it is too much of a contrivance which only serves to oppilate the narrative flow. It is also possible, however, that this is precisely what the author seeks: a sense of sameness that obtains between time present and time past, both recent and remote. (p. 31)

The abeyance of an expectant tautness in the novel is never resolved. Recognitions are diluted by their placement within the parallel flows of time, and although there are some near misses, there are no really blatant Dickensian epiphanies…. Again one wonders whether or not this plain lack of adventure might not be a deliberate attempt by the author to stress the drabness of it all. If that is so, then Vargas Llosa has succeeded only too well. The novel is much too long, and at times the reader must indeed have a certain Einfühlung with those Peruvians who were suffered to endure General Odría's dictatorship longer than they should have. The failure of what at first blush purports to be an adventurous and inventive style might also be a reflection of the absurdity of expecting permanence from such political structures, so flimsy in spite of their...

(The entire section is 1759 words.)

Jerry Bumpus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Vargas Llosa's comic novel [Captain Pantoja and the Special Service], Pantoja, captain in the Peruvian army, is sent to the backcountry city of Iquitos to implement a special service for soothing the troops' lust so set to boiling by the jungle heat, spicy foods, and the incredibly beautiful women of Iquitos. With dedication and probity, Pantoja, an officer whom the term "regular army" fits perfectly, sets out to develop a complex and elaborate operation which will provide the men with special service on a regular basis….

Vargas Llosa distances the reader from the characters and their action by telling more than half of the novel through military reports, newspaper items, and radio broadcasts. In the chapters where he uses scenes of dialogue, the author distractingly jolts the reader back and forth between several scenes occurring simultaneously. These devices do not conceal but heighten the fact that the novel's plot is skimpy and the pace slow.

The book's satire of the military's mindless adherence to procedures and the pitiful slaves to which this reduces men is linked with another satiric motif, contrasting the love tied up in crucifixions with the love a woman gives a man, a theme which apparently still needs arguing in Peru….

Captain Pantoja and the Special Service [praises] the strength, courage, and faith of men who are made fools by the fools who command them. Vargas Llosa's execution of this theme is … suavely and pleasantly carried off…. (p. 635)

Jerry Bumpus, "The Good Soldier," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1979 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLVI, No. 4, 1979, pp. 634-35.∗